Clocking in, by hand

The Associated Press

Some workers are doing it at Dunkin’ Donuts, at Hilton hotels, even at Marine Corps bases.

Employees at a growing number of businesses are starting and ending their days by pressing a hand or finger to a scanner that logs the precise time of their arrival and departure -- information that is automatically reflected in payroll records.

Manufacturers say these biometric devices improve efficiency and streamline payroll operations. Employers big and small buy them with the dual goals of keeping workers honest and automating outdated record-keeping systems that rely on paper time sheets.


The new systems have raised complaints, however, from some workers who see the efforts to track their movements as excessive or creepy.

“They don’t even have to hire someone to harass you anymore. The machine can do it for them,” said Ed Ott, executive director of the New York City Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO. “The palm print thing really grabs people as a step too far.”

The International Biometric Group, a consulting firm, estimated that $635 million worth of these devices were sold last year, and projects that the industry will be worth more than $1 billion by 2011.

Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies, a leading manufacturer of hand scanners based in Campbell, Calif., said it had sold at least 150,000 of the devices to Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s franchises, Hilton hotels and to Marine Corps bases, which use them to track civilian hours.

Protests over using palm scanners to log employee time have been especially loud in New York, where officials are spending $410 million to install an automated attendance tracking system that may eventually be used by 160,000 city workers.

Scores of civil servants who are members of Local 375 of the Civil Service Technical Guild rallied Tuesday against a plan to add the city medical examiner’s office to the list of 17 city agencies that already have the scanners in place.

The scanners have rankled draftsmen, planners and architects in the city’s Parks Department, which began using them last year.

“Psychologically, I think it has had a huge impact on the workforce here because it is demeaning and because it’s a system based on mistrust,” said Ricardo Hinkle, a landscape architect.

He called the timekeeping system a bureaucratic intrusion on professionals who never used to think twice about putting in extra time on a project they cared about, and could rely on human managers to exercise a little flexibility on matters regarding work hours.

“The creative process isn’t one that punches in and punches out,” he said.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg spokesman Matthew Kelly said that the system wasn’t meant to be intrusive and that it has clear benefits over punch clocks or paper time sheets.

The city expects to save $60 million a year by modernizing a complicated record-keeping system that now requires one full-time timekeeper for every 100 to 250 employees. The new system would free up thousands of city employees to do less paper-pushing.

Another benefit of the system is curtailing fraud. Several times each year, the city’s Department of Investigation charges city employees with taking unauthorized time off and falsifying time cards.

Other cities have embraced similar technology.

Cities as big as Chicago and as small as Tahlequah, Okla., have turned to fingerprint-driven identification systems to record employee work hours in the last few years. And the systems have been introduced into plenty of other workplaces without much grumbling by employees, especially those already used to punching a clock.

But the New York workers aren’t the first to fight it. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees complained vigorously two years ago after the city of Pittsburgh proposed installing fingerprint readers.

“We had a lot of questions, a lot of concerns, and so far they haven’t put it in,” said federation Council 84 Director Richard Caponi.

Jon Mooney, Ingersoll Rand’s general manger of biometrics, said the privacy concerns were unfounded. The hand scanners don’t keep large databases of people’s fingerprints -- only a record of their hand shape, he said.

Still, union officials in New York said they were concerned that the machines could eventually be used not just to crack down on employees skipping work, but to nitpick honest workers or invade their privacy.